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Dustin Amrhein

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Delivery Models for PaaS Solutions

A look at how providers are attacking PaaS

You know how we can tell PaaS is hot right now? We see vendors suffering from the same ‘me too' syndrome that we see with its parent, cloud computing. That is, it seems some players are all too willing to throw around the term PaaS in order to spunk up a press release or product announcement. I am sure this comes as no shock to anyone following the cloud industry -- just more examples of ‘cloud-washing.'

However, just because some of us may be use to this type of wishful branding does not mean it is without negative consequences. From my conversations with consumers, it is clear there is not a consensus on the meaning of PaaS. This holds true even when polling the subset of consumers very involved with cloud initiatives within their own company. Basically, when you bring up PaaS, everyone in the room may ‘know' what it is, but chances are they all know something different.

Personally, I have a simple (maybe overly so) outlook on PaaS. My thought is that PaaS solutions present cloud services with an application focus. When I think PaaS, I think of a model where the primary workload unit is some type of application. This means the entire solution orients itself around providing services for that application. These services definitely include application infrastructure (application servers/containers, web servers, databases, caches, etc.), and typically include runtime services like policy-based scaling, monitoring, metering, health management, etc.

The key is that the solution truly treats these capabilities as services. That means that as an end-user you do not spend time setting up, configuring, integrating, or otherwise mucking around with these things. You focus on your application, and the PaaS solution renders the necessary supporting cast. This view eliminates some ambitious claims regarding ‘PaaS' solutions that are basically nothing more than IaaS solutions with admin/operational views.

While there are certainly some out there trying to hijack the PaaS term, there are others that are treating PaaS legitimately. Moreover, as you may be able to surmise from the above description, doing so is not an easy task. PaaS brings the level of abstraction above servers, network components, and storage, where users accept a high degree of commoditization, to application platforms and services, an area where there is virtually no commoditization. In reconciling the fact that consumers still vary widely in their application platforms and services, PaaS providers can basically go a few different routes:

Platform/service depth with little breadth: Providers can choose to focus their PaaS enablement on a narrow subset of application platforms and services. This allows the provider to radically simplify the deployment of certain applications by providing deep expertise in the configuration and management of a relatively smaller set of infrastructure and services. This is a common point of entry for providers in the PaaS market as they can quickly get to the point of providing accelerated value. Of course, the catch is that users typically deploy different kinds of applications, which in turn require different platforms. In some cases, a focused PaaS solution may result in adoption hesitancy since it can only handle a subset of the consumer's overall application needs.

- Platform/service breadth with little depth: In this model, providers want to equip their users with a wider range of support for application styles, but typically do so at the expense of providing deep expertise in any one set of application platforms. Users have more control, but may have to provide some of their own platform configuration/management expertise. In other words, they accept a dilution of the service style delivery model for the application platform in favor of enhanced flexibility.

Platform/service depth with breadth: In this model, providers deliver deep expertise on a certain subset of application platforms and services, while accounting for extensibility that allows the user a wide range of application platform choice. This model often fits well for consumers that predominantly deploy applications of a particular style to a particular platform, but still want to address their deployment minority with the same approach.

In my opinion, no one approach is necessarily better than the other. It really comes down to the users and market that providers are attempting to address. I will say that the model of ‘Platform/service depth with little breadth' seems to dominate the landscape now, which makes sense given the nascent nature of the market.

In the long term, I believe the ‘Platform/service depth with breadth' model may be the most compelling for both consumers and providers. From a consumer standpoint, it gets them closer to the ‘one tool to rule them all' approach (or at least a single pane of glass). From a provider standpoint, it offers the promise of revenue streams from a variety of different application styles and platforms. However, from a provider standpoint, this is no doubt the toughest model to build and sustain. To offer platform breadth in a meaningful, extensible manner will take considerable effort, thoughtful design, and perhaps most of all, quite a bit of time (as an aside, I am a bit worried that we overlook the standardization requirements that will enable this kind of extensibility).

The fun is really just starting in the PaaS market. It is exciting to watch the trends of both consumers and providers in this space, and it is equally exciting to anticipate the ways in which this paradigm may fundamentally change the landscape of application platforms and services. Buckle up and let's see where this all leads us!

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Dustin Amrhein joined IBM as a member of the development team for WebSphere Application Server. While in that position, he worked on the development of Web services infrastructure and Web services programming models. In his current role, Dustin is a technical specialist for cloud, mobile, and data grid technology in IBM's WebSphere portfolio. He blogs at http://dustinamrhein.ulitzer.com. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/damrhein.